Harun Yahya, creationism and a media empire

Adnan Oktar, better known by his pen name Harun Yahya, is a Turkish Islamic creationist, cult leader and televangelist. He was sentenced to 1075 years for sexual offences, abuse of children and running a criminal organisation. A pseudo intellectual, Yayha distributed creationist literature and DVDs worldwide, and established a particular theologically-based cult of creationism.

Arrested in 2018 along with 200 of his followers, Oktar was sentenced earlier this year. His imprisonment gives us an opportunity to examine the rise and fall not only of this particular televangelist and cult leader, but also to examine the creeping influence of creationism – and its modern-day theological equivalent, intelligent design – on our own society.

Oktar’s pseudoscientific-based theology, a version of Islamic creationism, reached widespread audiences in the millions. Beginning his career as a TV speaker, railing against Jews, Freemasonry, Communism and evolutionary biology – all of which are interlinked enemies in his fevered imagination – he reached the high point of his fame with his 800-page Atlas of Creation. Distributed to leading academics, scientists, museums, journalists and experts across the world, he claimed to have refuted evolution which he mischaracterised with the scare-word ‘Darwinism’. That book was only one among many produced by Yahya’s burgeoning media empire.

It would be a mistake to dismiss Yahya as a crackpot or lunatic. He organised a very politically-and-business savvy empire, replete with educational materials and devoted followers. In 2007, Yahya seemed to be on top of the world, with access to a vast TV audience and increasing influence for his creationist views. While his sect was the subject of numerous sex scandals and legal investigations, in 2011 he started his own online TV channel.

Surrounding himself with blonde-dyed, sometimes scantily-clad young women – whom he called his ‘kittens’ – Yahya continued his prolific efforts to purportedly debunk evolutionary biology, and reach an English-speaking audience beyond his dreams. With his TV platform, backed by his Science Research Foundation, Yahya seemed unstoppable. His Versace harem was gaining popularity. But his fall was not long in coming. The Turkish authorities finally caught up with him and his sexually-charged proclivities.

The denial of evolutionary biology, not unique to Yahya, enabled him to make friends in numerous unexpected places. Yahya emerged from the turbulent political milieu of the 1980s, when the Turkish military and associated far rightist paramilitaries were attacking the labour unions and the Left. Yahya found his voice by advocating an Islamic-Turkish Union, a pan-Turkic neo-Ottoman project combining the various Central Asian republics. He found a readymade scapegoat for the ills afflicting Turkey – the nefarious Jews.

The Turkish ultranationalist Right, imbued with racism towards non-Turkic peoples, advocated a conspiratorial worldview. The Jews, along with doctrines perceived to be ‘western’ in origin, were targeted. This included the phantom of ‘Darwinism’ – a scientifically meaningless term, but one with sinister undertones.

Evolutionary biology, by positing natural causes to explain the diversity and radiation of species, was seen as a frontal assault on the notion of God and the supernatural. The notion of ‘Darwinism’ was mobilised by Yahya, among others, to denounce the materialistic godlessness of the West – backed up of course, by the always conspiratorial Jews.

His attacks on atheism and the associated bogeyman of ‘Darwinism’ gained Yahya adherents among ultrarightist Zionist Jews and orthodox rabbis. While Yahya had penned books in the 1990s denying the Holocaust, this did not stop him from gaining a platform in Israeli media, allying with equally far right Zionist politicians. Ultranationalist Israelis have long desired to replace the Al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem with a Third Temple for Jewish people to pray – a position Yahya has spoken of sympathetically.

His organisation has cultivated links with Christian creationist figures in the United States as well. The anti evolutionary message of Yahya’s publications has found receptive audiences across the globe. There has been extensive analysis of the evolution-creation debate already, and there are numerous resources debunking Yahya’s publications. These topics can be discussed in another article.

The purpose here is to demonstrate that while proponents of creationism – and is modernised incarnation known as ‘intelligent design’ – wrap themselves in the mantle of academic freedom and scientific inquiry, advocate a strongly political theocratic project. Yahya may be an outlier, but he is hardly alone or an exception. The United States has its own equivalent televangelist Yahyas, misdirecting the public on science education.

Does every single creationist belong in gaol? No, of course not. Is every televangelist a serial sex pest? No, they are not, although there growing numbers of them being exposed as moral hypocrites. Yayha was held accountable for his crimes, arrested in 2018, and gaoled earlier this year. It is high time to closely scrutinise the activities of the cultish televangelists in our own midst.

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